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A Cab Tale

Posted in Bronx Life, Bronx Neighborhoods, Crime0 Comments

Cash For Flunkers

By Maia Efrem

High achieving JHS 123 eighth graders credit incentives for the student's motivation to excel. Photo by Maia Efrem

High achieving JHS 123 eighth graders credit incentives for the student's motivation to excel. Photo by Maia Efrem

Stuffed toys, colorful pencils and stickers tempted the sixth grader in a pony tail at the ZONE store located in the cafeteria at the James M. Kieran Junior High School 123. Her turn was next. She deliberated for awhile, then picked the pink pencil with yellow smiley faces and hearts. Pulling out a Monopoly-sized bill, the girl handed over $5 and walked out, quickly showing off the pencil to the students still on the line. Principal Virginia Connelly, now in her 12th year at JHS 123, instituted the ZONE incentive program in the fall of 2006 to reward children for good behavior, attendance and high test scores. Teachers hand out fake $10, $20, $50 bills to deserving students use to buy pens, stickers, stuffed animals, Yankee hats, and other novelty items. "We did $1,200 worth of business today," said Kellyanne Royce, the school’s guidance counselor in charge of the store. ZONE stands for "Zest for learning, One for all and all for one, No excuses, Exercise daily." Junior High School 123 on Morrison Avenue and Bruckner Boulevard has had a long history of low academic scores. Its students are predominately minority and poor -- with 35 percent of the population black, 64 percent Latino, 1 percent other. Two years ago, 90 percent of students came from families receiving public assistance. Today that number is 98 percent. This year, for the first time, the scores went up high enough to remove the school from the state’s Schools Under Registration Review (SURR) list for under-performing schools. In the spring of 2009, JHS 123 received an "A" on the Chancellor's Progress Report. About 56 percent of the students read on grade level, up from 22.2 percent the year before.  Math scores were 66.7 percent, an increase from 41.8 percent. In addition, 267  out of its 567 students finished the semester on the honor roll--up from 148 the year before. The principal, Virginia  Connelly, called this a  "staggering success." She credits the progress to a series of initiatives, including lower class sizes for math and English, a new program the builds in parent participation and federally  mandated tutoring, paid for by city and state dollars that will dry up now that the school has shown so much success. But by far, the most controversial program has been the new and varied ways kids can now earn extra privileges. For example, teachers decided to allow the best-behaved homeroon to eat in the plush ZONE Lounge for a week. Formerly a teacher’s cafeteria, the large room has comfortable sofas and armchairs, a television, and video games for the students. Assistant Principal David Rodriguez said the lounge idea is one of the most popular. “The kids go nuts for it,” he said, laughing. “Every homeroom competes with another to see who will be the best behaved and get use of the lounge.” Students can also earn cash for taking the practice tests leading up to the state tests. The students receive $10 for taking the exam and an added $50 for scoring 100 percent. "It's difficult to get them to come to school to take the test," said Connelly. By the end of the year some of the students had earned upwards of $450. Some said they used their test money to buy medication and other household necessities. But most spent it on themselves.  One particular student had to hide the money from his drug addicted mother. Connelly worked with Washington Mutual Bank to help students open a secret savings account where he could keep the money safe. Another student, with dreams of attending Brooklyn Tech High School, saved every penny of his earnings for a new laptop and supplies for school. He put aside money for transportation as well allowing himself a weekly splurge on an express bus from Bronx to Brooklyn. Wearing a black cardigan, star-shaped earrings, and heavy black eyeliner, eighth grader Karen Cruz, a member of the student council, said she has seen the gradual change in her three years at the school. “It’s like we all started to care and wanted to do better. It’s an amazing feeling when you do well, and you know that you did it,” she said Attendance was also in the mix of behavior that could earn students rewards. Each eighth grade homeroom was thrown a pizza party for raising attendance rates -- now at 93 percent for the eighth grade. This is an incentive 13 year-old Tiffany de Losangeles thinks works. “Why shouldn’t we get prizes and rewards? We work so hard it’s the least that we could get,” said de Losangeles. “Clearly it works, our school is doing so well.” Her brother, Tommy de Losangeles, 15, was left back twice before, but is now treasurer of the student council. He won an Xbox 360 last year, one of the many raffle prizes the school gives out. "We get excited. For the prizes, pizza parties, and school," he said. "Find me an adult who does work without a thought of compensation. Why do people think kids don't think like that as well?" said Connelly."If I say to them being a good citizen, studying well, being on the road to college is going to be rewarded,"she said. "It's difficult for them to see that here." JHS 123 also received Supplemental Education Services to hire outside tutoring companies. Schools qualify for free tutoring if their school failes math and readings tests two years in a row. Four to five tutoring programs set up in classrooms after school and hired teachers from within the school, paying them $50 an hour. The companies -- Failure Free Reading, Kaplan, Princeton Review, Education "The going rate two years ago was $1,800 a child for 10 kids," she said. "The most the company spent on tutors and supplies is $7,000. But they made a profit of $8,000 in six months in just one school. It's a sweet deal." Schools that increase their grades are removed from the eligible list for the next school year, a measure that bothers Connelly. "The schools are hit hard by the sudden lack of funds," she said, suggesting an extra transitioning year of funding "so it doesn't feel like we are being punished for doing well." Besides increasing award-based motivation, the school reduced class size from 25 in reading and 28 in math down to 15 students per teacher. The faculty introduced a workshop model where teachers use visual aid to help the students understand complicated concepts. And the school introduced the Mastery Grading method that increased the passing rate to 75 percent, a move that alarmed teachers at first, but has raised the As a means of promoting reading JHS 123 introduced a new emphasis on authentic reading, or reading real books, not excerpts and short stories written for student textbooks. “Our students have become avid readers, something we hope they will take away with them when they leave,” said Connelly. Two years ago, science teacher Tabitha Hargrove and American history teacher John McSorley helped introduce TeacherEase, a web-based interactive grade book. The program allows teachers to enter grades and comments about the students, as well as the homework assignments. Parents have their own login information and can check on the status and development of their child at any time. TeacherEase has increased parental participation and awareness, an factor teachers believe is behind much of their students' success. “Nothing is a surprise at parent teacher conferences and report card days anymore,” said Hargrove. “The system logs which parent visited the site, and I’ll tell you, these parents are on it every day, it’s fantastic. As a teacher you don’t feel like you are doing this alone anymore,” said McSorley. “The parents are doing their part at home.” In most public schools every year the students change teachers. In JHS 123 the students stay with their respective teachers from sixth to eighth grade. “When I first started teaching here two years ago I thought it was odd, but now I think it is the best way,” said Hargrove, standing in her science classroom. “This allows the teacher to get to know the student and approach them in a way that will produce the most results.” The successful programs have been the catalyst to the school' success, but some questions linger about the school's rewards method and what it means in the long run. Programs based on reward motivation have sprung up in Baltimore, Atlanta, and recently in New York City. In 2008, Maryland provided $935,000 to programs aimed at increasing state test scores. The program, Learn and Earn, was successful and increased student marks on state standardized tests. But some experts argue these quick fixes do more harm than good. Writer and former teacher Alfie Kohn, claims students lose their interest in learning for its own sake when they are rewarded for behavior. "Rewards motivate students to get rewards for the sake of rewards," said Kohn. In one study, children who were expecting to receive a prize for completing a task successfully did not perform as well as those who expected nothing. This poses the question of what will happen to JHS 123 students once they are no longer offered a reason to do well. Kohn predicts they will lose interest in their work and return to the habits they had before they were motivated by prizes. The administration argues that incentives work when they are coupled with other curricular innovations.  JHS125 decided to turn the school's successful American History concentration into an all-school program in association with the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American Studies. It now has one of the strongest American History and Government curricula in the city. For the first time this year, 80 eighth grade students have signed up to take the 11th grade Ameican History and Government Regents test. "We're very excited, this is when we show how advanced we are in what we teach," said Connelly. Government teacher McSorley has altered how he teaches his class, allowing the students to choose their one homework assignment each week. Eighth grader Jovan Cook, 13, enjoys the freedom the system affords. "If I feel like it, I can write an essay or just define words, it's all up to us," he said. At four in the afternoon, long after other seventh graders had left for the day, Ryan Persaud and Gabriel Milligan, both 12, sit with math teacher Christopher Gooding building a robot. Members of the Robot club are preparing to represent their school in the citywide competition in January. Gooding has been teaching at JHS 123 for 11 years and has seen the changes over the last two as a sign of a promising future. “These kids are remarkable, and they definitely have a lot on their plate,” he said. “Many of the students live in shelters, and we try to be as understanding as we can.” “I enjoy doing this," said Persaud, not looking up from the plastic pieces he was putting together. "I memorized the manual so I never need to look in for help.” Behind him Milligan, or "Gilligan" as he is called, demonstrated the route the robot would have to make in less than three minutes. Looking up at Gooding, Milligan points out that every school he has ever attended "has been chosen for an award or something special." "This is a special school, right Mr. Gooding?" "Yes it is Gilligan," said Gooding.

Posted in Bronx Life, Bronx Neighborhoods, Education, Money2 Comments

Hostos High Achievers Feel the Budget Pinch

By Maia Efrem and Sarah Wali

For Sarah Delany, this semester at Hostos Community College was looking good. She had been elected as the student senate representative, accepted into the highly competitive nursing program, and would continue to be part of the university sponsored Student Leadership Academy.
The Student Leadership Academy holds workshops weekly that might be canceled due to budget cuts.

The Student Leadership Academy holds workshops weekly that might be canceled due to budget cuts.

But professors delivered a shock to the  nursing students on the first day of classes. Students would have to pay for their own course materials this year, which included interactive textbooks, access to an online instructor, online practice exams, a DVD lecture review system and eight review books. The package  distributed by Assessment Technologies Institute, LLC would cost them $430. A grant covered the cost for last year's students.  There was no grant for this year. Delany didn't have the  money. Most students at Hostos live in households that make less than $30,000 per year. Adding material costs to a $350 tuition hike for the semester, many wondered how they could afford to stay in school. City University of New York cut $44 million in state and city aid for the 2008-2009 school year, and proposed to cut $10 million to community colleges for the upcoming year. To offset the budget cuts, tuition has increased this year (and is expected to increase another 15 percent next year). Programs are being cut and students are left without the financial means to support a higher education. With all these budget pressures, even Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s pledge to infuse $50 million in the CUNY system would not be enough to help students like Delany. Programs for CUNY's brightest, like the Student Leadership Academy and Registered Nursing program, are feeling the cuts. But, Councilman Charles Barron, who serves as chair of the Higher Education Committee, claims the money is there. “How can they say there’s no money when CUNY has a $2.6 billion budget?” he said. “They are just not spending it on community colleges.” Barron urges students to demand the money they deserve. “No generation has ever progressed without a student movement,” he said. “It has never happened.  The money is there. You have to show that you are a priority.” Armed with skills she learned at the Student Leadership Academy in the past year, Delany did just that. She became an advocate for nursing students at Hostos. She wrote a petition to the Student Senate asking for funds, and gained support for other initiatives from students and faculty. Although the administration has yet to come to an agreement on the proposed increase, Delany said her experience with the Student Leadership Academy gave her the confidence to advocate for the nursing students.  Through workshops and conferences, Delany learned how to make effective arguments. The director of the Student Leadership Academy, Jason Libfeld, said hurdles like the one Delany is facing as a nursing student are commonplace at Hostos. A graduate of Columbia University’s Master of Fine Arts program, Libfield left his career as a teacher two years ago to establish this program that would help develop the highest achieving students into leaders through workshops, conferences and community service. To be an ambassador with the Student Leadership Association students had to demonstrate academic excellence with a grade point average above 3.4, commit to at least 40 hours a semester of community service and be willing to participate in conferences upstate and New Jersey. Most important, he hoped to create a sense of community otherwise missing at Hostos. “The first thing I asked for is mailboxes,” he said. “I wanted to make sure they came back to the office. If they had email I would never see them." Despite being tucked away in what they call the broom closet, Libfeld and his students have created one of the most successful student associations in the CUNY system. Major achievements include providing a student representative at the World Trade Center Memorial with President Barack Obama, and with Mayor Bloomberg during a memorable trip upstate at the Mock Student Senate meeting. The Model Senate provides a forum for students to discuss real issues currently being raised in the State Senate. The annual conference is held in Albany, and requires hours of preparation. Students who do well can carve a path towards a political career. Sandra May Flowers, whose motto is "opportunities quickly diminish," secured an intership with Councilman Barron after her first year participating in the  mock senate. The professional workshops cost an average of $2,000 per  month and may be the first program Libfeld is forced to eliminate. Samantha Jackson's experience shows how important the workshops can be. She worked hard to earn the grades she needed in high school to be accepted into a four-year college. But her mother could  not afford the tuition, which forced her to attend Hostos. "At first, it hurt to go to Hostos with the grades I worked so hard for," said Jackson, a Jamaican immigrant.. But she reached out to the Academy and learned about the Jose E. Serrano Scholarship for Diplomatic Studies, a program that moves students from Hostos into Columbia University for a Bachelor of Arts followed by a two-year graduate program at Columbia Unviersity's School of International and Public Affairs. Jackson was accepted to the program, which requires students to maintain a 3.0 GPA. Jackson, now finishing her degree at Columbia, attributes her success to the Hostos programs that are facing budget cuts in the coming year. She says the Student leadership Academy’s emphasis on community service was what she was looking for, training in the field and insight from professionals. During her time in Hostos, Jackson was one of many students who supported a small increase to the cost of tuition in an effort to attract a desirable faculty with promise of higher pay. "The school could not keep educators because they could not pay them enough in today's bad economy," said Jackson. "A small tuition hike could have resolved a lot of issues. We could have raised the money that the city and state were not providing the school." However, according to Barron, students are fooling themselves if they think a tuition hike would mean more resources for students. “They bought the Kool-Aid from the administration,” he said. “They believe that if they increase tuition the school will then invest that money back into the programs.” Barron points to the $60 billion city budget and $131 billion state budget, claiming that it is up to the city to allocate appropriate funds for community colleges. “We can build Yankee Stadium?” he said. “We can build the Mets a new stadium, but we can’t provide money for CUNY students?” Despite the proposed budget cuts, and the continued financial stresses the students of the Student Leadership Academy are facing, they remain optimistic about the program’s future. Libfeld says one of his proudest moments with the Student Leadership Academy was planting 900 trees in one day at St. Mary’s park in the Bronx. He also remembers the day he took the students to Isabella Nursing Home. One of the students was so excited to be there, she talked until one of the senior citizens fell asleep. He and the students are resigned to continue on even if they lose workshop and field trip money. At least outreach would be saved. It costs nothing. Something Libfeld and his students don't mind. “If we have to go back to bare bones, then we’ll do that,” he said. "No matter what we will always have community service.”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Education, Money2 Comments

2254 Crotona Ave.

By Maia Efrem

From a distance, the building at 2254 Crotona Ave. looks like all the other dwellings in the surrounding blocks. On closer inspection, however, the lock is knocked out on the front door, the windows on the first floor are boarded up and graffiti covers concrete slabs that block the entrance to many apartments in the building. An Ocelot entity bought the Crotona Avenue building along with four others from Loran Realty X Corporation in July 2007 for almost $7 million. Since then, the six-story, 28-unit structure has gone through three management companies: Ocelot, Hunter Property Management, and now JLP Metro Management, Inc. Large swaths of graffiti covered the hallways and apartment doors until they were painted by JLP Metro several weeks ago. Tenants are pleased to see the graffiti gone, but they said they still suffer from moldy walls and plumbing problems. When Ocelot, and later Hunter Property Management, stopped providing maintenance services for the tenants, the conditions swiftly deteriorated. The Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) has 859 open violations for the building, 738 of which are either "hazardous," or "immediately hazardous." Complaints include exposed electrical wires, faulty and leaky plumbing, and lack of a working carbon monoxide detecting device. According to the current superintendant, Victor Garcia, the building had no landlord for roughly six months. Rent was not collected during that period, and the building deteriorated because of lack of upkeep. There was no heat and hot water. “It was chaos, every man to himself,” said Garcia. “There was no one to complain to or answer to.” According to Garcia, some tenants owe as much as $20,000 in unpaid rent. Altagracia Rogers has two holes in her bathroom, one in the ceiling and one in the floor; both offer her a view of her neighbors and them of her. “We try to cover it up with bags but it doesn’t always work,” she said, pointing towards the ceiling where the gaping hole reveals a blue bathroom upstairs. She has endured several floods in the last year. “No one helps us, we have to help ourselves,” she said. Because there was no one to pay for the repairs in the building, there was also no one to pay Garcia for his work. “Everything I did I did for free,” he said. “I even bought a five-gallon can of paint, walked away for a minute and a tenant had stolen it to paint her own apartment. I couldn’t even be mad, I just laughed it off.”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Housing0 Comments